My relationship with my extended family started to deteriorate when I was about 14. My father became unable to take care of me and my mother had already abandoned me. My uncle and aunt took me in and gave it a heroic effort, but they had a newborn baby and a two-year-old of their own. So I eventually spent much of my adolescence in a group home where my relationship with my dad’s family was cordial but more than a little distant.
That didn't improve over the years. As I grew up, my relationship with my dad’s family became complicated, filled with some mix of obligation, resentment, affection and grudges. Then one day something magical happened that improved my relationship with both my own, and my wife’s extended family, instantly: We had a baby.
It was as if the slate had instantly been wiped clean. My wife and I were no longer just the weird, socially awkward introverts the family reluctantly tolerated because they had to. No, we had a wonderful new identity that instantly made us much more popular among our aunts and uncles and cousins—we were the beaming parents of Declan, an adorable baby boy who brought joy to everyone around him.
All of a sudden, family members genuinely wanted us around, and that had everything to do with our smiling little bundle of joy, and nothing to do with me.
Before him, I saw a lot of my familial obligations as obligations: You do these things because you have to, not because you want to. That changed with Declan. All of a sudden, family members genuinely wanted us around, and that had everything to do with our smiling little bundle of joy, and nothing to do with me. We similarly welcomed the opportunity to be around our relatives, because we now had a tiny little ham who was the star attraction of every party we attended.
My son’s birth changed the way I saw my role in the family as well. I was never a very good family member and never felt I had much to offer. But after my son was born, I felt that I had everything to offer. I didn’t take any pride in being a sub-par nephew, son, cousin and grandchild, but I couldn’t be prouder to be Declan’s dad. It’s an identity I cherish, and one that has brought me closer to family members who adore my boy.
This will change over time. As he gets older and his personality grows and changes, he’ll do things to piss off not just his parents but his other relatives as well. Yet as the years progress, I'll always treasure these years when, without even knowing it, Declan entered relationships that were troubled and pained, and with nothing more than a smile and a relentlessly sunny disposition, made them so much better.